Are There Any Alternatives to Catnip?

A cat relaxes on a chair licking catnip
Try giving your cat a bit of catnip or a toy to stop them from licking you. Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock

If you own a feline friend, you've probably offered her catnip. Some pets think catnip is kitty heaven, but what about those that turn up their persnickety noses?

Here's the scoop on the feline favorite and some options if catnip doesn't make your cat swoon.

How catnip works

Nepeta cataria, a perennial herb of the mint family, is the true catnip plant that enthralls many felines. Native to Europe and Asia, it's now common in many parts of the world, including much of the U.S. and southern Canada.

The chemical compound nepetalactone is what's responsible for attracting and stimulating cats and is found in both the leaves and the stems of the plant. So what exactly does catnip do to cats?

Although we think catnip has a magical effect on all kitties, for some cats, it does nothing. They sniff it and move on. For other cats, smelling catnip makes them go bonkers. According to the Humane Society of the United States, researchers believe that catnip targets feline "happy" receptors in the brain. When eaten, however, it can have the opposite effect, and make your cat mellow out.

Catnip is said to have a similar effect on cats that marijuana has on humans. Cats often react by rolling, flipping around, rubbing, jumping and eventually just zoning out. Sometimes they growl or meow, or they can become hyper or aggressive if you go near them. Some owners use it to reduce anxiety in housebound cats.

The effects usually last for about 10-15 minutes and then wear off. Young kittens aren't attracted to the smell of catnip. Cats can get sick if they eat too much. If a cat is habitually exposed to it, it could lose interest in the once-enticing herb.

Catnip alternatives

Valerian flowers
Valerian may make us humans sleepy, but it peps up kitties. Martin Fowler/Shutterstock

Russell Swift has practiced holistic veterinary medicine in south Florida for more than 25 years and now formulates nutritional supplements for Pet's Friend. "Since only a minority of cats respond to catnip, I have worked with many other natural options," he says.

L-theanine, a compound from green tea, is one of Swift's favorites. He starts with 50 milligrams and works his way up from there.

"It won't sedate, but will often calm," Swift says. "Valerian root and kava kava are herbal alternatives to catnip but are more sedating than theanine. I start with one-fifth of the human dose."

The active ingredient in valerian root is actinidine. Cat owners add valerian to their pet's food or stuff it in a toy. It has a similar stimulating effect to catnip, but it has a strong urine smell that some can't take.

The flowers of Actinidia polygama, or silver vine
Actinidia polygama, or silver vine, is a popular cat treat in Asia. Qwert1234/Wikimedia Commons

Silver vine, or Actinidia polygamais, is another alternative. It's also known as Japanese catnip since it's the most popular cat treat in Asia. Its active ingredient is also actinidine and can have a more powerful effect than catnip, so it's a good idea to try it with your cat in very small doses.

Acalypha indica, also known as cat grass or Indian nettle, is a medicinal plant that is common in West Africa. The effect of Acalypha indica is said to be more powerful than catnip, but only the root of the plant is attractive to cats. Lemongrass, a native herb to India and Sri Lanka, is another option.

Swift says he never used catnip that much in his practice.

"Most cats didn't go for it. It is known as a digestive tract herb in humans," he said.

Household kitties aren't the only ones smitten by the allure of catnip. The tantalizing herb can also have a similar effect on big cats, like lions, tigers and cougars.

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.